It is springtime in Kentucky – think foals and mares in the pristine meticulously fenced pastures. But, in another part of the state – the Appalachia region of eastern Kentucky – it is time to plant on those rocky hillsides. As my 90 year old father puts it, you plant your corn when tree buds are the size of squirrel ears. I confess to not having given a thought to whether squirrels even have ears or not ... but my father knows. He was born and raised in a part of the world where they know things like that, typical of the mostly Scots-Irish who settled there. He knows the land like the back of his hand, he is self-reliant and stubborn to a fault and he knows what it is like to be poor and bereft of opportunity.
Appalachia Eastern Kentucky – take just one geographic area out of a huge region spread over several states – is negatively depicted in popular imagery and academic literature as a drag on the Kentucky economy. The whole region is enigmatic like the underachieving child in a family of superstars. Until now, that is. With the financial collapse having brought America to her knees, it is a bit like the screaming headline about Toyota's debacle: "the A student flunked the class." Perhaps that underachieving C student finally has her chance to shine. After all, who would have given Ford a chance a few years ago?
But Appalachian eastern Kentucky is after all a land where every manner of program has been tried, books written, studies undertaken, and mournful music sung. It is where the failed War on Poverty was launched in the 1960s. The reason for a "new day dawning" is that there is a stir across the land that signaling an epochol shift in the evolution of the American Dream. Call it by wonky titles like "new localism" or call it "choosing who I want to be and where I want to do it." But whatever it is, it is impacting on our lives dramatically and will do more so in the future.
The prestigious Economist Magazine (May 15, 2010) recently reflected that in the future people will have unprecedented choices of living in big vibrant cities or in smaller more nurturing rural settings. And, the stories abound. Take Patty who left the factories of the north to return to her native land. Always known for her shrewd business acumen, she took over and renovated "The Old Schoolhouse" antique gallery located near Cave Run Lake. She scours the region for her "goods" and is visited daily by weary travelers seeking the authenticity of a culture too long locked in the shadow of conventional definitions of success. Likewise, despite the long held belief that they are leaving, young people are finding ways to stay in the region, such as the young man in a recent audience who has taken advantage of "tele-learning" and plying his trade as a graphic artist for a west coast software company.
There appears to be a convergence of forces at work that could prove transformational for regions like Appalachia. Brought on by the Great Recession, people have to make choices about their priorities and perhaps even to downsize lifestyle appetites. But that's not all. These forces will impact all places but particularly rural places like Kentucky, places of great beauty and tranquility and appeal waiting for the right moment that may finally be here.
These converging forces are driven in large part by technology and the realization of its earlier promise that we truly can live and work anywhere. It is about participating in the preservation of a precious culture locked for too long in the closet of neglect and stigmatized with the label of backwardness. It is about an ability to do more than scrape out a meager living in the rocky hillsides. Evidence can be seen in a migration pattern that is, for the first time in decades, giving Kentucky and surrounding states a positive net migration from the rest of the country. We are seeing youthful retirees coming home in some instances and young families putting down roots in places that feel right for their chosen way of life. And there is a growing business culture that knows about the world but sees no paradox in growing itself in Appalachian soil – and using the culture to its advantage.
Just take note of Kentucky "ham" country if you want to partake of successful business stories. Recently profiled in the New York Times Magazine (May 23, 2010), Kentucky's home grown hams are making their way onto the world stage. The author marveled at the ham store owner's chatter about attending a ham conference in Spain and the desire of buyers to travel to a small town to buy nitrate free bacon. Imagining Kentucky hams being worth a wait in noisy New York City restaurants defies explanation except to acknowledge that the song is right that "somethin's happenin' here."
What must the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky and the rest of Appalachia do to take advantage of this new opportunity? It must reinvent itself as with many other aspects of the American Dream under the new rules of the 21st century. Reinvention will require answering the question "what is success"? With extreme partisanship and 30,000 foot politics at other levels of government, it is no longer viable to look in the direction of the "higher ups." We must look to ourselves. Only we can provide the basis for community building and ensure the investments we need to make in health and education.
Ah, springtime. Nature has taught us well; re-invention is to see the possible and to seize the moment. The moment is now.
Sylvia Lovely is an author, commentator and speaker on issues relating to communities and how we must adapt to the new landscape that is the 21st century.
Photo by J. Stephen Conn.